With vibrant tropical colours and a penchant for the grotesque, Macunaíma (1969) is a strange but delightful masterpiece of Brazilian cinema. Its creator, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade (1932-1988), was one of best directors of the cinema novo movement and this is his most ground-breaking work. Emerging in the early 1960s, the movement was characterised by its commitment to engaging with Brazil’s socio-political reality and a desire to innovate a cinematic language beyond all imported models. While Joaquim Pedro’s previous films were marked by their lyricism and formal restraint, as illustrated by his documentaries and fiction feature, O padre e a moça (The Priest and the Girl, 1966), Macunaíma overflows with irony, debauchery, and all manner of excess.1 

These qualities are partly the result of the film’s dialogue with the “chanchadas”, the low-budget genre of carnivalesque comedies that were popular in Brazil from the 1930s until the 1950s.2 Generally lowbrow and often technically flawed, the genre was repudiated by the filmmakers of cinema novo, a position that resulted in a contradiction: while the chanchadas drew the working classes to theatres in droves, cinema novo’s films, often centred on characters from the working classes and focusing on their struggles, were largely seen only by middle- and upper-class cinephiles. Glauber Rocha’s classic cinema novo film Terra em transe (Entranced Earth, 1967) self-consciously highlights this by focusing on the incommunicability between a fictional revolutionary poet (a stand-in for the cinema novo director) and members of the working class. In contrast, Macunaíma, which was partly shot in the same memorable location as Terra em transe, Rio de Janeiro’s Parque Lage, brought more than two million people to theatres, an accomplishment unheard of in relation to the films of cinema novo. This success was arguably the result of the film’s chanchada elements, which include a saucy sense of humour, the glib velocity of its narrative, a propensity for exaggerated and comical acting, and the use of recognisable popular actors from the genre (especially Grande Otelo, to whom I will return below).

To appreciate Macunaíma’s layered complexity, however, we need to consider not only its relationship to cinema history but also to the Brazilian modernism of the 1920s and the indigenous themes on which it draws. Brazilian modernism sought to combine the heritage of European culture with the country’s indigenous roots in an attempt to forge a modern and novel synthesis. This goal is illustrated in a manifesto of the period, which states: “Tupi or not Tupi: that’s the question”,3 a phrase that combines references to Shakespeare to the name of the first indigenous people encountered by Portuguese colonialist explorers in 1500. 

Joaquim Pedro’s film is based on another modernist text, the 1928 experimental novel Macunaíma by Mário de Andrade (1893-1945; no relation to the filmmaker).4 Mário’s deep investment in understanding Brazil’s multilingual and multiracial mix led the writer to a lifelong career as a folklorist and musicologist. It also drew him to study ethnologists like the German Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872-1924), who documented the oral traditions of indigenous peoples from northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. It was in Koch-Grünberg’s writings that Mário discovered the charming if utterly immoral and libidinous trickster Macunaíma, a metamorphic demigod that struck him as an ideal archetype for thinking about Brazil’s complex and not fully formed cultural identity. Mário appropriates the Macunaíma myth by retelling it beyond the hero’s forest adventures. In a quest to recover a lost magical stone, Mário’s Macunaíma migrates to São Paulo and ends up embattled with a nouveau riche industrialist and collector, the giant Venceslau Pietro Pietra. In a reversal of European narratives of discovery, in Mário’s telling it is the indigenous and not the European who is placed in the role of the traveller/explorer discovering a marvellous new world – here a world not of virgin forests but of concrete buildings and machines. 

As the reader can surely infer from this brief description, Mário’s novel is an extraordinarily      difficult text to adapt to the screen and it is remarkable that it became such an accomplished film. In adapting it, Joaquim Pedro sets the narrative in the context of his own time, which takes in the hardening of the military dictatorship that was installed in 1964, various countercultural stirrings, and the many problems of a country in the throes of a rapid and erratic process of modernisation. While retaining many crucial elements from the novel, the film is more grounded in social and political problems. Thus, when the hero goes from the forest to the city in the film, we see him and his brothers riding on a flatbed truck along with a crowd of north-eastern migrants headed to the burgeoning cities of the southeast. Rather than the adventure quest of the book, the scene points to the real problem of internal migration. Ci, the forest queen who is the hero’s most important romantic conquest in the book, is cast in the film as an urban guerrilla, a revolutionary woman who also represents the counterculture and cosmopolitan consumerism. The film’s opening and closing song, moreover, is a nationalistic anthem celebrating official heroes. In the context of the military dictatorship, this is a grim association not contemplated in the book. Even the colour green, a motif that refers in the film to the forest and tropical nature, also evokes nationalism and army fatigues. In fact, the combination of green and red motifs, clearly marked at the beginning and end of the film, points to the military regime’s violence, though with enough subtlety to elude censorship. 

The film’s unforgettable first scene illustrates some of the points that I have been making. We see a ghastly woman screeching while giving birth. When her offspring drops to the ground, we are shown a middle-aged Black man who cries like a baby – the young Macunaíma, played by Grande Otelo. Macunaíma is born Black in an indigenous-like setting to a pale white mother, a mix that reflects Brazil’s multiracial makeup.5 Macunaíma’s mother is played by the male actor Paulo José, the same actor who will later play the adult Macunaíma (after a magic fountain turns the middle-aged Black “youth” into an adult white man). The zaniness of these elements illustrates the film’s anarchic spirit as well as its allegorical register.6 It also demonstrates some of the qualities of the protagonist, who is born already old but who never actually grows up. He is indigenous, Black, and white, but none of these entirely. The original novel’s subtitle is O herói sem nenhum caráter (The Hero With No Character). It is precisely this ambiguous “lack of character” in the indigenous myth that led Mário to see Macunaíma as a proto-Brazilian. “Sem caráter” in Portuguese can mean either lacking in morals or having no defined traits. Joaquim Pedro does not use the novel’s subtitle in the film, but his Macunaíma is at least as “sem caráter” as the novel’s. He is a fickle cheater and liar. He is also an endearing misfit. The product of an unlikely cultural and racial mix and of troubling circumstances, he is a masterful improviser who does his best to survive and get by. In this sense, perhaps, he is indeed like many Brazilians. 

Viewers will have to judge for themselves how they feel about this hero. They can also do so in relation to Mário de Andrade’s novel, which is finally available in a superb English translation by Katrina Dodson. The paperback edition includes cover art by Macuxi indigenous artist Jaider Esbell (1979-2021).7 Esbell’s art opens a window on the source material that looks beyond the reach of this article. The Macunaíma myth is part of Esbell’s Macuxi cultural tradition and the artist spent a portion of his career recovering and reflecting on Macunaíma (or Macunaimã, as the Macuxi call him). Esbell’s visual art offers a much-needed intervention and complement to the novel and film, works that are lively with the force of indigenous ideas but in which actual indigenous people and perspectives are largely absent.

Macunaíma (1969 Brazil 95 mins)

Prod Co: Condor Filmes/Filmes de Serro/Grupo Filmes/Instituto Nacional de Cinema Prod, Dir: Joaquim Pedro de Andrade Scr: Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, based on the novel by Mário de Andrade Phot: Guido Cosulich Ed: Eduardo Escorel Prod Des: Anisio Medeiros

Cast: Grande Otelo, Paulo José, Jardel Filho, Dina Sfat, Milton Gonçalves, Rodolfo Arena


  1. Ivana Bentes, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade: A revolução intimista (Rio de Janeiro: Relume-Dumará-Rio Arte: 1996), p. 65.
  2. J. L. Vieira, “Chanchada e a estética do lixo”, Contracampo, 13 (December 2000): 173.
  3. Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófago” (“Anthropophagous Manifesto”, 1928).
  4. I will use the director’s first name in keeping with a Brazilian tradition as well as to avoid confusion between the two Andrades discussed in the text.
  5. In the novel the entire community is Black.
  6. For a thorough allegorical reading, see Ismail Xavier, Allegories of Underdevelopment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 133-154.
  7. Mário de Andrade, Macunaíma: The Hero With No Character, trans. Katrina Dodson (Cambridge: New Directions, 2023).

About The Author

Gustavo Procopio Furtado is Associate Professor in the departments of Romance Studies and Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University. His work focuses on Latin American cinema and cultural studies, ethnographic and indigenous filmmaking, and on questions related to media theory and ecology. His book Documentary Filmmaking in Contemporary Brazil (OUP, 2019) won the Antonio Candido Prize for Best Book in the Humanities, awarded by the Latin American Studies Association.

Related Posts